Ever since its widespread popularization in the early 1990s, the first-person shooter has developed a reputation for delivering heart-pounding experiences in which the avatar is dropped in a virtual space awash with enemies, and tasked with dishing out as much punishment as humanely possible with a wide assortment of guns. But in addition to that, the FPS also enables the player to traverse a game environment they can take full advantage of through the use of an incredibly valuable ability that they can master to get the upper hand on their virtual foes: a 3D movement model.
In first-person shooters, the movement model represents one of the main cornerstones of game balance and flow. It is one of the mediums through which the player character carries out their plan of attack in the heat of battle, and it also acts as one of the primary mechanics that the gamer leverages while exploring and experimenting with various play styles and strategies. Whether the avatar is tiptoeing their way through the level or navigating the environment at blazing speed, locomotion serves a multifaceted and adaptive purpose that is tailored for any in-game scenario.
Over the next couple of decades, the movement model in FPS games would evolve into a more malleable and multilayered gameplay component, with titles like Starsiege: Tribes and Titanfall shaking up the standard “run, walk, jump, sprint” traversal formula by taking advantage of complex environmental layouts and advanced game engine features to transform the shooting experience into one that values meticulous and smart mobility. It’s through technical and design metamorphoses like this one that the genre was able to offer additional means to explore the game world and engage hostile NPCs.
With all of these technological and gameplay advances, it makes sense for developers to start considering ways to further expand the utility of FPS movement schemes and refine them even more. Through an understanding of the game space that they are crafting and the myriad possibilities that the player can tackle a particular in-game situation through spatial awareness and improvisation, the designer can fine-tune the avatar’s traversal capabilities in order to make them both incredibly intuitive and consistently valuable throughout the length of the game.
I shall develop my argument by listing five important principles that can constitute a solid FPS movement model and, when combined, give the game a silky smooth feel to it. For each element, I’m going to give you an example of a game that gets that particular aspect right.
NOTE: The tips that I’m sharing with you may or may not be compatible with every game depending on the designer’s philosophy and vision, but they serve as general guidelines that can benefit the virtual experience when well-implemented.
1 - Tighten the movement model for it to be snappy and slick
One of the first considerations that developers need to keep in mind when designing the movement model for their game is to ensure that the motional actions the avatar shall perform throughout the experience feel reasonably reliable and tight. This is incredibly important because first-person shooters generally require the gamer to make quick gameplay decisions on-the-fly in order to get the upper hand on hostile forces and use their surroundings to their tactical and strategic advantage. A control scheme with minimal input delay and devoid of distracting “floatiness” can go a long way towards improving the “feel” of the in-game action and assisting the player while they are carrying out their traversal plan.
Machinegames’ Wolfenstein titles perfectly encapsulate that design consideration. In both the New Order and the Old Blood, the player is expected to traverse the various locales they visit methodically and swiftly while skulking in the shadows and engaging swarms of Nazis in order to effectively mete out punishment. Thus the controls had to be fine-tuned to make B.J. Blazkowicz’s moves feel tight and responsive, allowing the action to flow seamlessly and the gamer to focus exclusively on tackling the scenarios they’re faced with. Not only does that motion scheme benefit gameplay feedback, it also enhances the old-school and fast-paced structure that defines Wolfenstein and sets it apart from most other shooters on the market.
When it comes to crafting a satisfying first-person shooter, having a solid and tight movement model can make all the difference in the scenarios that the gamer is going to go through. Failure to take that design aspect seriously can result in the developer concocting a disjointed and floaty playing experience that can throw the player off and prevent them from truly savoring the moments of pure and unmitigated joy that the designer attempted to impart. By taking into account the dynamic nature of the gameplay and meticulously tweaking the character’s motions to accommodate various play styles, the developer can turn the avatar into an efficient combatant capable of gracefully handling the situation with incredible ease and precision.
2 - Make the player agile enough for optimum adaptability
Another key component of FPS movement that can potentially transform the experience that the designer is crafting is the avatar’s overall agility. Agility corresponds to how fast the character is with their feet and governs the overall pacing of the title as well. Just like motional responsiveness, the gamer’s speed has a tremendous impact on their combat adaptability, which can spell doom for developers if they adjust that variable on a whim. Finding a happy medium between “too slow” and “too fast” greatly strengthens game balance and enables the player to properly analyze the situations they are faced with and adjust their course of action accordingly and swiftly, which can prove especially crucial and life-saving in the heat of battle.
The Crysis series has developed a well-deserved reputation for making the gamer feel like a nigh-on unstoppable killing machine through brisk maneuverability. In each game, the player is equipped with a Nanosuit that allows them to achieve various extraordinary feats that are tied to the armor’s functions, including “Maximum Speed”. With this mode activated, the protagonist’s agility is greatly enhanced and his chances of quickly evading precarious situations and adapting to the ever-changing scenarios increase dramatically. This essentially opens up new gameplay opportunities for the player to take advantage of and helps speed up relocation times in the midst of combat, allowing the open-ended gameplay to remain perpetually engaging and exhilarating.
Nimbleness constitutes an incredibly vital aspect of player character movement in first-person shooters. It determines the size of the “windows of opportunity” the avatar can be presented with while engaging the enemy and it has the potential of enhancing the effectiveness of the combat stratagems the gamer may have up their sleeves when trying to outwit and outgun the opposition. As such, the designer must exercise extreme caution while adjusting the variables that influence the level of adaptability and set of traversal skills that the character possesses since it can have an impact on gameplay balance and flow. When well-implemented, agility can markedly empower the player and enable them to overcome any obstacles that are thrown at them in an elegant fashion.
3 - Add some motional heft to the avatar for meaty locomotion
On the other side of the traversal spectrum lies the concept of motional heft, or how weighty the gamer’s moves feel while navigating the virtual space. This can be a real immersion-boosting quality in first-person games since the player is essentially sharing the same body as their avatar by viewing the game world through their eyes. Having a tangible sense of gravity influence the perceptibility of the actions that the character performs on the battlefield can reinforce the idea that they are really connected with the environment they are traversing. When appropriately tweaked and coded, heft can substantially amplify sensory and gameplay feedback and make it splendidly gratifying.
The Killzone games demonstrate the raw and unadulterated weightiness that comes with controlling a gun-totting character quite well. In each installment of the hard sci-fi console shooter franchise, the player is treated to a palpably sturdy movement model that serves to accentuate the idea that gravity has a sizable effect on the avatar’s mobility. From sprinting across the battlefield to taking cover behind walls, each move the gamer makes throughout the games feels adequately and physically substantial, heightening the sense of immersion that comes with seeing the world through the character’s eyes. This contributes to deeply satisfying and punchy combat that adds some much-deserved “oomph” to the overall package.
Because of their perspective, first-person shooters are generally adept at ingraining in the player’s mind the idea that they are truly interacting with the world they’re dropped in, so having them feel the pressure and force of the maneuvers they perform throughout the experience can really help solidify that immersive quality. Heft doesn’t necessarily mean that the avatar should be a lumbering figure for the gamer to fully pick up the sense of gravity in their moves. It simply means that the character must in some shape or form have their actions connect with the virtual space they’re traversing. With that definition in mind, the designer can deduce a way to complement punchy gunplay with equally meaty locomotion, creating a pleasantly sturdy sensory symbiosis.
4 - Include some mobility functions to broaden traversal options
Of course, first-person movement models aren’t simply about walking and running across the virtual terrain. One of the more intriguing design components to have emerged over the past years are mobility functions, which correspond to motional techniques that are heavily inspired by the discipline of parkour. In addition to broadening the gamut of moves the avatar can pull off, those enhanced traversal mechanics can work in tandem with the player’s combat maneuvers to boost their chances of survival and heighten situational dynamism. Such abilities unlock new gameplay possibilities for the developer to integrate and for the gamer to experiment with, which can definitely help make the playing experience that much more thrilling.
Techland’s Dying Light is a great example of a first-person game that marries the exhilaration of parkour with its gameplay. In this open-world zombie game, players must do everything they can to survive and escape the undead hordes roaming the streets of Harran. They can do so by making full use of the avatar’s set of acrobatic skills which involve climbing ledges, leaping off from edges, sliding, jumping from roofs to roofs and zip-lining. All of these elaborate stunts, combined with the grappling hook, enable the player to use the environment to their advantage to find the best route towards completing their goals and highlight the impressive verticality and depth that make the act of journeying and exploration pleasantly breezy.
Of all the tools that the player can leverage while navigating the game world and dealing with its sundry hazards, movement functions represent some of the most useful and critical abilities that the avatar has at their disposal. Their free-flowing functionality, pliable design and multifarious structure mean that they can easily be integrated into any of the gamer’s strategies, and mixed to create strings of navigational and offensive moves that liven up combat and beget incredibly dynamic scenarios. By taking environmental layouts and emergent gameplay into account, the developer can properly integrate motional capabilities into the experience and provide the player with more ways to use the virtual space to their advantage and more room for experimentation.
5 - Turn the character’s movements into a useful weapon
But it’s not just how a player moves around the game environment that can make the experience an enjoyable one: how said player can use their moves to their advantage in combat can also be a gameplay boon for both them and developers. In addition to the arsenal of guns and explosives the avatar has at their disposal, the character can also make full use of their maneuvers by transforming them into an effectively lethal weapon to take out the opposition while in motion. Instead of always standing still or slowly trudging their way through the virtual space to dish out punishment at a distance, the player can get up close and personal and use their traversal abilities to confuse their targets and get the upper hand on them in an unpredictable and stylish fashion.
Bulletstorm is the kind of shooter that delightfully takes that gameplay possibility into heart with regards to its “Kill with Skill” mantra. This high-octane, over-the-top FPS strongly encourages gamers to find the best (i.e. most creatively gruesome) way to dispatch their foes in order to accrue lots of points. In addition to the energy leash and lethal guns, the player can also make use of the sliding mechanic to ram enemies, shoot them from a low angle and string multiple “skillshots” while on the move, preserving the dynamic flow of combat. When coupled with the other aforementioned tools at the avatar’s disposal, Bulletstorm becomes a frantic FPS that leverages all of its elements, including traversal ones, to great offensive effect.
In games as frantic and complex as first-person shooters, keeping one’s options open is a necessary skill for the player to possess since it can enable them to improvise on-the-fly and benefit their play style in the long run. This gameplay mindset can be encouraged by providing the gamer with a plethora of functions that can be used as a deadly mechanic, and that can include expanding the usefulness of traversal capabilities so that they can be used to subdue the opposition as well. A designer should be able to brainstorm all the possible tactics the player might adopt and try out throughout the experience, and weaponizing the avatar’s body and motions is one ingenious way of fostering experimentation, creating depth, and livening up combat.
As a genre that strongly emphasizes action, reflexes and quick thinking, first-person shooters constitute some of the juiciest opportunities for developers to build gameplay systems that make the avatar feel like they are in near complete control of the actions they perform and the situations they find themselves in. This is why it is important to craft a smooth and multifaceted movement scheme that will enable the gamer to gracefully and effectively execute their plans while traversing the environment and taking on waves of hostile NPCs. With the principles that I laid out, designers can find sundry ways to turn the player character into a refined and light-footed force to be reckoned with and elevate the experience to unparalleled and fluid heights.
Let me know what you think of my article in the comments section, and feel free to ask me questions! I’ll do my best to get back to you as promptly as possible.